Years after Uber founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick said Uber would buy all the robotaxis Tesla could make (it turns out the figure was zero), Uber has launched its first robotaxi for commercial use. Over in Las Vegas, Uber users can now virtually hail a full-on robotaxi.
Uber’s New Robotaxi Service
Who did Uber end up going with in order to venture into the autonomous ride-hailing arena? Not Tesla, not Waymo, not Cruise — Motional. I know, not exactly a household name, even for those of us who follow the autonomous vehicle market quite closely. Motional is a joint venture between Hyundai (you know them) and Aptiv (a much more familiar name than Motional).
Uber and Motional have already signed onto a 10-year partnership.
At the moment, there are a few caveats. First of all, the service will be free for the time being — but will collect fares eventually. Also, there are still “safety drivers” in the cars in case something comes up that the autonomous driving system can’t handle on its own. Safety drivers are going to be ejected in 2023, though.
The Hyundai IONIQ 5, a fully electric vehicle that was a finalist for the 2022 CleanTechnica Car of the Year award, is the model that is being used for this self-driving taxi service.
How do you use Motional robotaxis on Uber? They can be found on UberX and Uber Comfort Electric. “Comfort Electric is an extension of Uber Comfort in which riders pay around 20 to 40 percent more than a typical Uber X trip,” The Verge notes. It also happens to be the most popular option on Uber.
“This service comes after a successful launch of autonomous deliveries with Uber Eats in Greater Los Angeles,” Motional writes.
“Today, Motional becomes the first AV company to conduct all-electric autonomous rides on the Uber network for public passengers,” said Akshay Jaising, Motional’s Vice President of Commercialization. “It’s a testament to our technology and the power of our partnership with Uber that we’re able to go from concept to consumer in such a short time. Las Vegas is the first of many cities in which Motional’s AVs will become an everyday transportation option for Uber customers looking for a safe and convenient ride.”
“Motional has proven themselves to be an industry leader, steadily and safely progressing autonomous technology towards a driverless future,” said Noah Zych, Global Head of Autonomous Mobility and Delivery at Uber. “We’re thrilled to take this next step together in Las Vegas, and look forward to continuing to integrate autonomous technologies into the Uber network to grow our business by providing customers with additional reliable, affordable and effortless transportation and delivery options.”
Lyft Working With Motional, Too
As it turns out, Uber’s top competitor in the app-based ride-hailing market is also partnering with Motional. In August, Motional and Lyft launched such a robotaxi offering in Las Vegas — using Hyundai IONIQ 5s. Furthermore, less than a month ago, it was announced that autonomous IONIQ 5s could be hailed via the Lyft app in Los Angeles, California. (It is quite funny to me that while you can get robotaxis from Uber or Lyft in Las Vegas, either way, they are going to be Hyundai IONIQ 5s. I’m also happy about that since I think IONIQ 5s are some of the best cars on the market today.)
“This is an exciting next step for Motional and Lyft as we bring robotaxis to Lyft riders in Los Angeles for the first time,” said Karl Iagnemma, Motional’s President and CEO. “Los Angeles is the second most populated city in the U.S. and represents a huge market opportunity for AV adoption. This service will build on the five years of commercial experience we already have with Lyft, and give Los Angeles riders a driverless experience that prioritizes safety, is affordable, and supports the city’s commitment to improved mobility.”
The Trillion-Dollar Questions
Will Uber or Lyft be able to bring these electric robotaxi offerings to the mass market? Will the become the dominant, preferred option of customers? Also, will Motional be able to get profitable offering such robotaxis to Uber, Lyft, and perhaps others in the coming decade? How far away are they?
Naturally, we don’t know the answers to any of those questions. But those are the big questions.
Another question may be whether or not such robotaxis are safer than human-driven Ubers and Lyfts. I presume that will be a definite yes in the coming years if it isn’t already today. While that may not translate directly to billions in revenue for those companies or for Motional, the benefits to society are immeasurable but surely tremendous.
Robotaxis For Food First
While robotaxi service for humans may have just launched on Uber, food has had robotaxis service for months on Uber Eats. Since May, Motional and Uber were working together to get food deliveries to Uber Eats customers in Santa Monica, California.
“Motional and Uber announced their partnership in December of last year, signaling important firsts for both companies: the first on-road autonomous vehicle (AV) pilot on the Uber Eats network and Motional’s entry into the autonomous delivery market,” Motional wrote at the time. “The companies look forward to learning from the service and receiving customer feedback, as they jointly develop an automated delivery model that could quickly scale to more areas across Los Angeles and in other cities. The goal of the pilot is to create the groundwork for future commercial activities between Motional and Uber.” And so they did. They Uber Eats program must have gone very well for Uber if the company decided to launch robotaxis for humans with Motional’s support just a few months later.
The Future Is Arriving?
Writing about the most recent news, the partnership with Uber in Las Vegas, Motional adds: “With today’s launch, Motional is now the first AV company to conduct both deliveries and rides on a major network like Uber. Motional is uniquely experienced in deploying AVs for ride-hail, having operated a public robotaxi service in Las Vegas for five years. Combining this expertise with the world renowned Uber network enables consumers to experience autonomous rides for the first time in a way that’s affordable, convenient, and safe. A robotaxi is now an additional transportation option for Uber riders to choose from as they’re empowered to go anywhere and get anything.”
So, what’s on store for Motional (and Uber and Lyft) next? How quickly will they expand these services? What locations or services will be added in 2023? We’ll see.
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